Wednesday 18 September 2019

FIFA 20 preview: Taking back the streets

The producers of FIFA 20 talk about new street football mode Volta and refinements to Ultimate Team

FIFA 20 features a new street football mode called Volta
FIFA 20 features a new street football mode called Volta
Ronan Price

Ronan Price

So goodbye then, Gamebreaker, you mad thing. Those of you as long in the tooth as me may dimly remember the mid-2000s FIFA Street series and its outrageous stunt-based football – whose matches were often punctuated by unstoppable rocket shots known as Gamebreakers.

Now that EA is reviving the street scene as a new mode in next month’s FIFA 20, the sad news is that Gamebreakers don’t fit with what the developers are trying to achieve.

Reality is the new buzzword in FIFA Volta, the new name for the street mode, which we got our hands on at a preview in Berlin last month, alongside extended looks at tweaks to Ultimate Team and the main game itself.

FIFA’s creative director Matt Prior explained the thinking after our hands-on session with Volta: “We wanted to do a much more authentic variation of the game within the authentic world of FIFA. You do some kind of cool celebrations off the cage but it's all within the realms of reality. In terms of the Gamebreaker, we didn't really want to go near that in the sense that it had to be grounded in reality of football.

Volta effectively replaces The Journey, FIFA’s trilogy of story modes that enabled you guide a raw youth player to the heights of the Champions League final. Now, instead of rubbing shoulders with Harry Kane and Cristiano Ronaldo, you’re mixing it with the giants of real-world street football scene, which is admittedly not nearly so glamorous.

Naturally, the EA lads, who can’t help but repeat the word “authentic” in their enthusiasm for Volta, went straight to the top guys when researching the project, roping in Dutch master Ed van Gils and Canadian star Jayzinho, who also featuring in FIFA Street back in the day.

FIFA creative director Matt Prior at the preview event in Berlin. Photo: Ronan Price
FIFA creative director Matt Prior at the preview event in Berlin. Photo: Ronan Price

“Ed van Gils is dubbed The Godfather of Street,” says Prior. “He kind of helped build that scene. He's from  Amsterdam. Jayzinho is an ex-pro. He used to play for Lyon and then transitioned to the street game.

“So we went out and spoke to those guys, they're actually characters in the story. You'll meet those guys in the story because we want to make sure we were getting to the kind of the people who understood that culture.

“When they played it, it resonated within them and they kind of knew we'd got it right. So it's important to get that kind of feedback on what makes them tick.”

The goal for EA in bringing back Street, sorry, Volta – which is Portuguese for “return”, by the way – seems to be to broaden FIFA’s already massive player base. The hope is to draw in casual players with a game that is very similar to the main 11-vs-11 mode. The philosophy is that Volta may be trick football but it’s still football.

“The first thing we did was go out on the road and speak to real-world street players and ask them what is street, what makes it tick,” notes Prior. “One of the interesting and  reassuring things that they told us is that there's obviously there's this level of flair and skill but fundamentally it's still football.

“If you've got some guy doing all the tricks and flicks but his team's losing, he'll get booed off the park. So when we thought about what we wanted to do, we want to base it around that core football. So it made sense for us to do it around the core FIFA engine.

FIFA Ultimate Team now features legends such as Didier Drogba
FIFA Ultimate Team now features legends such as Didier Drogba

“We see this as an opportunity for casuals to come to FIFA who  might not previously been interested in football. They've maybe not got a team, maybe they don't understand the offside rule. But this is an opportunity to dabble in it.

“If you took FIFA Street back in the day and you became proficient at FIFA Street and then went to FIFA, there was not much crossover. One of the things we want to do with this is if you come to FIFA to play Volta, there is that potential to cross over into the 11-vs-11 game. You would transition with a knowledge of understanding 80pc of the 11-vs-11 game. And vice-versa if you're a FIFA veteran, you can come to the game and you don't need to relearn a whole new gameplay engine with Volta.

“But obviously we've made the skill moves more accessible, the flicks, the tricks are that much more accessible. Quite rightly, in the 11-vs-11 they're kind of the domain of the hardcore. You don't want every Tom, Dick and Harry doing a Rabona all the time.

“But in Street you do want that extra emphasis on flair, so we've made them a lot simpler to do.”

A couple of hours’ hands-on play reveals Volta to be quite similar to Street, according to my recollections. The handling and viewing angle are similar to the main FIFA game but it’s still the cramped 3-vs-3, 4-vs-4, or 5-vs-5 in tight cages that mean many matches seem to play out the same as each other. Except without the excitement of Gamebreaker to blow a hole in the opposition defences.

EA was equally keen to talk up the improvements in FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT), its billion-dollar card-collecting mode. Some of the tweaks chip away at the complexity of the interface that has built up over the years, such as managing your squad and selling off consumables. Others add customisation to your club, such as stadium themes, player celebrations and new crests.

The more interesting refinements to FUT include friendlies, which don’t use up your players’ stamina or affect chemistry. Even better, you can turn on House Rules for these friendlies, enabling wacky mutations such as Mystery Ball that add over-the-top effects, giving players super speed or doubling the value of goals.

New tweaks to FUT allow more customisation of your club
New tweaks to FUT allow more customisation of your club

But any conversation about FUT always comes back to the controversial issue of lootboxes. EA executives took a bit of a battering in June about FUT player packs when they appeared before the UK parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Nonetheless, Britain’s Digital Minister did later conclude that lootboxes were not gambling, something that Belgium authorities among others would contest.

At the Berlin event, FUT lead producer Garreth Reeder was a little defensive in answering questions about the game’s pay-to-win packs, which cost real money. Last year, EA added pack odds – telling you the likelihood of getting a valuable player when you buy a pack - in the face of pressure from governments worldwide.

When I asked him whether more changes were forthcoming, Reeder said there would be no further alterations to such microtransactions in FIFA 20.

“Obviously we're going to keep an eye on things, as to how they go. But the pack odds that we put in, that was something that we just wanted to do for people to see and have more informed choices about what they're getting in the game. We weren't sure what the reaction was going to be but I think with the community it's been good, and we'll just continue to monitor that feedback as we go forward.”

When pressed further about increased scrutiny by government, Reeder acknowledged the issue of lootboxes is currently a hot one.

“We see it, we're obviously aware,” he concedes. “I think, like the rest of the industry, we're just keeping an eye on where that goes. But currently we've got good feedback from players. There's no changes, or no planned changes in FUT coming.”

Another reporter pressed Reeder on whether EA would put a cap on purchases of FUT points, to avoid children going wild with their parents’ credit card.

“No, it's maybe - based on feedback - something we look at down the road,” he explained. “We look at it as consumer choice for what they want to open. There's still more packs opened through coins than through FUT Points in the game. We'll keep listening to feedback but we've no plans to change that.”

One thing that has always bugged me about FUT is that your progress gets wiped at the end of every season, no matter how much money you spent or time you invested. Reeder rules out changing for now because of balancing issues.

“I think it's not something we've considered in the short term,” he says. “Maybe in the future, in a world where the game isn't refreshed in the same way it is year on year, that might be something we'd consider.

"We do some carry-over in terms of returning user rewards going into the next title, but allowing people to take their full set of content into the next title would have major challenges in terms of game balance and the type of content that people have in the game. That's really the primary reason.”

At least microtransactions have no part in Volta – yet. Matt Prior confirms there are no pitches for your wallet for players, etc.

“Never say never,” he says with a grin. “So, yes, it could happen at some stage but no, not at launch.”

 

• FIFA 20 launches on September 27

 

 

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